BRISTOL, Tenn. — Coming into Monday’s Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt, Raphael Lessard had no past history of racing on dirt, so he had no expectations for what a strong finish would be.
That made a third-place run at Bristol Motor Speedway a huge positive for the 19-year-old Canadian, who had run into mishaps in each of the first four NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races this year.
Not only was it Lessard’s best finish of the season, but it also marked his first top-10 run since joining GMS Racing after spending his rookie campaign with Kyle Busch Motorsports.
“First of all, I just want to thank everyone at GMS. That was a blast and I had so much fun,” Lessard said. “Coming from the back, it was pretty hard to pass and you had to wait for people to make mistakes. I loved it. Slipping and sliding like that, it was a lot of fun. I just couldn’t get the truck to turn on the bottom like I needed in the race. Oh well, though. We’ll just move on.
“It’s good to finally get a good finish. We didn’t have the start to the season that we wanted, but I’m happy with a top three and we’ll keep moving forward from here.”
Where did Lessard learn the skills he needed to be successful on a low-grip dirt track?
“Driving on ice back home,” he joked in his post-race interview with the Motor Racing Network.
“The beginning [of the race] was pretty fun because [the track] was super gripped up, but at the end, there wasn’t any grip … at least I didn’t have enough,” Lessard explained. “I was having a hard time getting [the truck] to turn. The right front wasn’t turning at all. I was trying, like Ben [Rhodes] said, to drive it like on concrete and I couldn’t get it sideways because it wasn’t wanting to turn.
“I said that [to MRN] as a joke, but it’s kind of true,” he added with a smile. “Driving in the ice and snow, you’ve got to be smooth with the throttle, smooth with your hands and everything, and we’re so used to it. We get like five feet of snow back home every winter. That’s how I grew up, was driving my dad’s Chevrolet around the yard, drifting and sliding around. I think it helped me.”
Though some dusty conditions defined the second half of the NASCAR Cup Series race later in the day, Lessard tipped he was pleased with how the track surface turned out for the Truck Series event and is looking forward to a return attempt on the Bristol dirt next spring.
“I think they did an awesome job. I was surprised that you couldn’t hold on [up] top for that long in practice; it seemed like the top one went away really, really quick and it got dry super quick, but I think they did a really good job [preparing the track],” Lessard noted. “I don’t know if it was from all of that rain, but it was hard on the water temperature, coming from the back. I don’t know how many laps I did there with the gauge at 300 degrees. It was kind of stressful, but I had so much fun.
“Thanks to Bristol for putting dirt on it. It really was a blast. I love doing new things like this.”
Equally as important, however, was Lessard’s jump from 18th to 14th in the point standings, lifting him from a relatively deep hole in the championship fight back into contention for a playoff berth.
“This was important for my team and everybody around me for the confidence it gave us,” Lessard said. “At the beginning of this year, we had a lot of speed and were showing it during the races, but every time something would happen at the end, or I’d make a mistake, or something broke, or we’d have a flat tire … we just never had the results we wanted. So I’m really happy with a third place finish here. I think that we needed this to turn things back around and keep going [in a positive] direction.
“It was a lot of fun today and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season. Hopefully, we can be here again after a couple more races.”
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season continues April 17 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway.